FOOD POLITICS

Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: Election food-news briefs

A wrap-up of 2016 political food issues

As shoppers across Nebraska sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, traditional and not-so-traditional, take a minute to reflect on the numerous ballot initiatives this fall aimed directly at changing the nature and make-up of that table. Highlights include:

Foresight on Food Politics: What is 'livestock friendly,' and why should you care?

What is livestock friendly?

More than a decade after Nebraska's legislature began creating “livestock friendly” designations for counties, those counties that have participated have gained more cattle ranches and lost fewer hog farms than counties that have not sought the state designation, according to a new study by University of Nebraska ag economists.

Foresight on Food Politics: Three facts about the ethanol fuel standard

Facts about ethanol fuel standard

Atop news that consolidation was occurring in the ethanol-refining business, as two Nebraska ethanol plants went on the block as part of bankruptcy proceedings against Abengoa Bioenergy, Investor's Business Daily marked the 11th anniversary of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with an editorial from the oil industry demanding its end. Signed into law by President George W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers at the pump. Despite sparking billions of dollars in U.S. investments and helping reduce dependence on foreign oil, the RFS remains an obviously complex and contentious issue, as the IBD editorial testifies. Clarity around RFS is important to retailers not only because of the implications for grocer's food costs, but also because of questions of whether ethanol mandates increase or decrease the cost of the gasoline most grocers now rely upon for sales or rewards programs.

Foresight on Food Politics: Forget 'GMO.' Now the panic is over 'GEO' foods

When is biotechnology not GMO? WHen it's GEO

Passage by both houses of Congress this month of the first nationwide law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled was supposed to quell the anti-GMO "food transparency" voices and pre-empt the feared financial disaster that patchwork state-to-state labeling laws could bring with it.

Yet the ink had hardly dried on the 63-to-30 Senate bill, which split Nebraska’s U.S. Senators who argued in voting both for and against that they were doing so to protect farmers, before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. Their issue now? "Genetic editing."  It turns out this more-promising form of biotechnology, known as "genetically edited organisms," likely won't fall under the requirements of the new federal legislation.

Here's the difference:

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their genetic material altered by artifically inserting genes from a different species into them. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) example—now shown to be mostly urban myth—was Monsanto's reported attempt to insert genetic material from flounder into tomatoes in order to increase their frost tolerance. That's the kind of shock value biotechnology opponents built into the term "GMO" in order to further their demands for labeling legislation and other regulatory controls.

GEOs are organisms that have had a portion of their DNA altered without including foreign genetics. Made possible by the modern ability to "map" all genes in an organism and identify which of those control both negative and positive traits, genetic editing has proven itself in research and human medicine. Now, aided by easy and cheap technology like the most common, known as Crispr-Cas9, GEO is now being tested in agriculture to precisely edit plant and animal genes to control pests, improve important production traits, and even improve environmental impact.

Unlike past technology that often inserted entire genes or long DNA strands into organisms, Cirspr-Cas9 uses special protein enzymes to snip out only the specific DNA segment that controls the trait in question, replacing it with "knockouts" that repair the DNA minus the specific segment, causing it to either nullify unwanted traits or express desired ones. For instance, phytate is a compound common in corn that reduces a pig's ability to absorb the mineral phosphorus. As a result, much of the phosphorus in pig feed passes through the animal without being used, ending up as a potential pollutant in streams and lakes. Using genetic editing, researchers have been able to snip out the specific gene that causes the final step in phytate production in corn, interrupting the process and creating a corn that will improve phosphorus use and therefore reduce phosphorus pollution.

A recent commentary in the journal Nature Genetics by molecular geneticists from China's Agricultural Genomics Institute argues important differences between GMO and GEO technology mean they should not be regulated the same. As the journal's editors point out in an editorial in the same issue, "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between [the two]."

"There is no reason to regulate [GEO]s with gene knockouts or nucleotide variants that either have been documented to exist within crop species or closely related wild species or that can reasonably be expected to arise by spontaneous mutation," the Chinese researchers write. "Because such genetic stocks could in principle...be generated by conventional breeding or random mutagenesis, they should be considered the same as those used in conventional breeding, which are not regulated."

"The potential benefits of [GEO]s should not be impeded as a result of misinformation, so disclosure and education are the best ways to promote sound policies," the journal editors urge. "Scientists will be more trusted if we deploy technology where it is most needed."

In late June, more than 100 Nobel laureates went even further, publishing a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding Greenpeace end its campaign targeting biotechnology, and calling it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation.

“The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

But the kind of concensus the scientists call for remains elusive, if comments on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during debate on the new labeling legislation are any indication. McGovern argued the law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want. Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

The Huffington Post echoed the theme, saying the labeling law "is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs" because it doesn't simply say whether or not a food is “made with genetic engineering.”

“It's very simple," Representative McGovern argued in his floor speech. "The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”

But as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, this latest confusion over terminology regarding biotechnology is no less nonsensical than the entire broad-brush "GMO" term. An Oklahoma State survey, for instance, showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on "foods containing DNA.” All foods, except perhaps bottled water, contain DNA. Similar work by the same researchers found consumers were nearly equal in their desire for GMO labeling as they were for labeling fruit ripened by the process of using atmospheric ethylene, the common and completely safe ripening process using the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. Their conclusion? When you start including vague terms on a label, it introduces a level of concern that may have little or nothing to do with the real risks of the process or ingredient being labeled.

The legislation now sits on President Obama's desk. Obama is expected to sign it.

Foresight on Food Politics: Would Trump's wall really bankrupt America's dairies?

Would Trump's Mexican immigrant policy break the nation's dairy farms?

Bloomberg Politics reports in early June several sources within the nation's dairy industry are fearful that presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's promise to build an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.

Trump’s immigration stance “scares the hell out me,” Wisconsin farmer and president of the state's Dairy Business Association Gordon Speirs told Bloomberg.

The fact our state is better known for beef cattle masks the reality that some 55,000 dairy cows generate more than 100 million gallons of milk and roughly $275 million a year in economic activity. How vulnerable would those Nebraska dairies be to a potential loss of migrant labor? A 2015 study by Texas A&M pointed how reliant the dairy industry is on immigrant labor, which is often here off the books:

  • On U.S. dairies as a whole, of the estimated 150,418 workers employed in 2013, immigrant labor made up 51 percent of all dairy labor. Dairies that hire immigrant labor produce 79 percent of the U.S. milk.
  • Additionally, other researchers have found that, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics estimates from 2001 and 2002, about half of all immigrant agricultural workers in the United States are unauthorized.
  • Eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows, cut milk production by 48.4 billion pounds and the number of farms by 7,011.
  • Retail milk prices would increase by an estimated 90.4 percent.
  • Eliminating immigrant labor on dairy farms would reduce U.S. economic output by $32.1 billion and reduce employment by 208,208 jobs. Approximately 64 percent of the losses noted above would occur in input supply sectors and services provided to U.S. dairy farms.

In addition to those direct losses, indirect productivity losses also can be assumed. Although dairy farm workers on average are paid well above minimum wage--one study showed average annual equivalent compensation of $34,443--and dairy farms that hire immigrant labor pay higher average wages than farms that do not hire immigrants, the reality that those illegal immigrant workers often work in the shadows causes productivity losses. One study, reported by Farmer Goes to Market here, suggested farm employers often avoid issues caused by facing a worker deportation, by refraining from promoting immigrant workers into more advanced and publicly visible positions. They also typically refrain from training and granting responsibilities to unauthorized immigrant workers or promote them to positions that require them to have insurance for fear they might lose that investment if the workers were arrested for immigration violations.

Whether Trump's plan to wall off Mexican immigration comes to fruition or not, the labor outlook for America's farms doesn't look good, according to an analysis by University of California Davis, titled The End of Farm Labor Abundance. In it, the ag economists suggest demographic data from rural Mexico shows the same shift out of farm work that occurred in U.S. labor history is well underway in Mexico. At the same time, demand for agricultural labor in Mexico is also rising. That means U.S. agriculture will compete with Mexican farms for a dwindling supply of farm labor. The decline in foreign labor available to man U.S. farms will ultimately drive them to find ways to save labor and switch to less labor-intensive crops and technologies--all as they pay higher costs.

Partners

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.